If you are like most Americans you regularly enjoy a soft drink. But not unlike tobacco, what has been thought of as perhaps just an indulgent product is quite literally killing you. Each additional daily soft drink serving increases a child’s risk for obesity by 60%. Consumption of high fructose sweetener has increased by more than 700% over the last 20 years, and dietary fructose not only adds “hollow” calories but also adversely affects macromineral metabolism. Almost half of the additional calories increase in the American diet since the 1970’s come from soft drinks; they are the #1 source of added sugar in the American Diet. Per capita soft drink consumption has increased 500% since the 1950’s.
And not unlike the tobacco issue, there has been increasing debate as to what to do about this crisis. What starts as a health issue balloons into an economic, public policy and even a constitutional issue.
In the past few years one issue that has received much attention is the idea of a so-called “soda tax”. New York has been considering a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks; Philadelphia has proposed a two-cent per ounce tax on sugared beverages; Kansas has considered a proposal for a penny tax per teaspoon of sugar in soda; Mississippi has considered legislation to tax the syrup used to sweeten soda; Colorado removed existing tax breaks on sugary beverages and candy; and of course California has been tossing the soda tax around.
A majority of Californians support a tax on soda to help fund childhood obesity reduction programs, according to a poll carried out on behalf of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) has estimated that the bill could raise $1.5 billion a year, with the proceeds going to fund programs to tackle childhood obesity.
There is also mounting data to suggest that these types of taxes would have an intended effect. In a study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers calculated that an 18% soda tax would lead to consumption of about 56 fewer calories each day for young to middle-aged adults, equivalent to weight loss of about five pounds per year.
Another study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, detailed how sugary soda consumption at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston fell by 26% when researchers added a temporary tax. Sales of alternative healthier beverage choices increased, suggesting that higher prices for caloric drinks may encourage many people to switch to healthier alternatives.
Following the successful anti-tobacco efforts, revenues from soda taxes can fund prevention and intervention programs and could be used to counter the massive advertising of soda and junk food.
But no one likes taxes and certainly taxing a highly consumable product like soft drinks will pinch an already tight family budget, hitting lower economic families the hardest. Consider also the “fairness” of such a tax, not to mention where the line is drawn on sugar products. Do we tax all products containing sugar, just soft drinks, and what exactly do we consider a soft drink?
As opposed to a “soda tax”, I would suggest policy makers look at making changes to agricultural subsidies. Most of us don’t even think about these enormous and important programs, especially in terms of health issues. However, agricultural subsidies artificially decrease the costs of “bad” foods such as sugar and corn sweeteners, thus encouraging consumption. We should reverse this by eliminating the decades-old subsidies on corn products (HFCS, etc.) and transfer them to organically produced and minimally processed foods, thereby reducing their costs and encouraging consumption. As opposed to taxing bad choices if we simply stopped making them artificially affordable we create a more palatable approach to equalizing market conditions. If you understand how and why we have been subsidizing and encouraging the over use of these crops and their processed products, you will see the simplicity in utilizing the same approach on crops which we know are abundantly more healthful. I welcome your feedback.